Barcelona boss Luis Enrique exploited the post-match euphoria of his side’s 6-1 annihilation of Sporting Gijon on Wednesday night to announce that he will quit at the end of the season. Enrique, 46, cited the grind of the pressure as the main reason for his departure.
“We were all left a bit open-mouthed,” admitted midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who said the squad was told of Enrique’s decision just before his post-match press conference.
Enrique, a former Barcelona star, took over in May 2014. At the end of the 2015 season, his side had collected the Uefa Champions League, the La Liga title and the Copa del Rey. A domestic double followed in 2016. There have also been victories in the Fifa Club World Cup, the Uefa Super Cup and the Spanish Super Cup.
“Luis Enrique leaves as he has always been, faithful to who he is: unpredictable and indomitable,” said Barcelona-based newspaper Sport. “His announcement took almost everyone by surprise in a decision that was strictly his.”
Enrique’s future was thrown into doubt two weeks ago when Barcelona were obliterated 4-0 at the Parc des Princes in the first leg of the last 16 in the Uefa Champions League. If they fail to overturn the deficit against Paris Saint-Germain, it will be the first time in 10 years that the Catalans have been dispatched at such an early stage of the competition.
The poor performance in Paris also exposed disagreements in the changing room. Skipper Andres Iniesta and midfielder Sergio Busquets criticised the tactical set-up for the game.
There has also been disquiet over Enrique’s structural philosophy. Barcelona have for long promulgated the “purity” of their sides. Normally they are built around talents nurtured in the fabled La Masia training school.
Star striker is Lionel Messi is one such product, so too are midfielders Iniesta and Busquets. But attackers Luis Suarez and Neymar are expensive imports and while the front three were running opposition defences ragged, there was only muted carping about the team’s more direct approach – faster balls from midfield into the Messi/Suarez/Neymar troika – and a more cosmopolitan composition.
“I speak like a Barcelona fan – it’s the club of my heart – I’m going to miss the perfect coach for Barcelona,” said Manchester city boss and former Barca coach Pep Guardiola. “We will miss his personality, his character and his teams that have played unbelievable football with unbelievable players.”
Guardiola stepped away from the coaching post after four trophy-laden years complaining about the pressure. “If he wants to go, I completely understand him,” added the 46-year-old. “I wish him all the best and I say thank you for all that you have done during your three years at my club.”
In the wake of Enrique’s decision, Guardiola ruled himself out of a return to his homeland. The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also dismissed suggestions that he would be interested in a spell at the Camp Nou.
“My preference has always been the same and will remain the same,” said the Frenchman. “Of course I am not looking for jobs in other clubs or jobs of other people. I am focused on me, getting to the next level and trying to improve and always trying to see what you can do better and reinvent yourself and that’s what I try to do. That’s basically it.”
He added: “I have been here at Arsenal for 20 years and I had many times the opportunity to leave so I don’t think I have to convince you that my preference has always been Arsenal. But of course I am objective and lucid enough to make the right decision for myself and the club as well. The club is free to make the decision it wants and I will respect that.”
Former Barcelona forward Ernesto Valverde is a leading candidate to replace Enrique. The Athletic Bilbao coach is among the front runners with Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli who has guided Sevilla to the last 16 of the Champions League. Sampaoli’s side are third in La Liga, five points off Barcelona with 14 games remaining.